What Makes Us Happy?

In 1938, Arlie Bock, the director of health services at Harvard University, pondered the same question. Bock decided medical research was too preoccupied with the sick; he wanted to study the qualities of wellness. In his words, the “combination of sentiments and physiological factors which in toto is commonly interpreted as successful living.” Happiness.

Over the course of eight decades, he and other researchers observed 268 men from their early days of college through old age, and some through the end of their lives. They were examined with everything from Rorschach tests, to psychological studies, to electroencephalographs, to “the hanging length of the scrotum.”

Some went to war, some were workaholics, some alcoholics. Four became Senators, one was elected President. Nearly a third displayed symptoms of mental illness, despite being handpicked for their “normal” qualities. Yet, some of the more detached subjects made surprising psychosocial adjustments over the course of their lifetimes. One man even attempted suicide after graduation, only to turn his life around years later after experiencing simple kindness during a hospital stay.

In the end, Harvard had compiled the most thorough longitudinal study of well-being in history. With all this research, what did they discover makes us happy?

“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Every single person’s happiness, or lack thereof, was entirely dependent on their connections with other people. Money, luck, health and other seemingly obvious factors didn’t guarantee happiness. But relationships were found to be a necessity.

In the design and UX industry, we all create products that facilitate human interaction online. We enable necessary connections between people. In this cloud world we live in, sometimes that’s easy to forget.

These interactions—and the relationships which are fostered as a result—enrich people’s lives. We should consider this in our work and strive to not only create valuable, functional products, but to create good experiences for the people who use them.